Justin Verlander’s Incredible Post-Tommy John Surgery Season Continues

© Lindsey Wasson-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Verlander wasn’t quite at his best on Wednesday night, yielding three runs in six innings against the Rangers in Houston — his first time surrendering more than two runs since June 24. Even so, the 39-year-old righty continued an impressive comeback following nearly two full seasons lost to injuries — first a forearm strain and then Tommy John surgery. In fact, he leads the American League in both wins (15) and ERA (1.85), and while those don’t carry the same currency at FanGraphs as they do elsewhere, it’s not hard to imagine him adding a third Cy Young award to his trophy room if he keeps this up.

Verlander won the award for the first time in 2011, when he went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts in 251 innings; by leading the league in wins, strikeouts, and ERA, he also claimed the pitching triple crown and added the AL MVP award as well. Over the next seven seasons, he finished as the runner-up for the AL Cy Young three times (2012, ’16, and ’18) but also endured some ups and downs, including a 4.54-ERA season (2014), an injury-shortened one (2015), and a late-season trade to the Astros that helped him claim a World Series ring (2017), albeit on a team that was later sanctioned for its illegal electronic sign-stealing efforts.

After narrowly losing out to Blake Snell for the award in 2018, Verlander finally won another Cy Young in 2019, going 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA and an even 300 strikeouts; in the same game he reached that plateau, he also became the 18th pitcher to surpass the 3,000-strikeout milestone. It’s taken more than two years to follow that up, however. After a spring in which he suffered both lat and groin strains, Verlander underwent surgery to repair the latter shortly after Major League Baseball was forced to postpone Opening Day due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When he finally did take the mound roughly four months later for the Astros’ season opener, he suffered a forearm strain, and after experiencing pain during a simulated game while rehabbing, he was diagnosed with a torn UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery in late September, which cost him all of 2021.

According to the Tommy John surgery database kept by Jon Roegele, to that point only 12 other pitchers aged 36 or older had undergone the surgery (another, John Axford, has since then). Only one of them, reliever Arthur Rhodes, returned to throw more than 100 innings and only two pitchers, Rhodes and Billy Wagner, accumulated more than 0.6 WAR post-surgery. Against that grim backdrop, Verlander’s numbers stand out:

Tommy John Surgery Recipients 36 and Older
Pitcher Team Age Surgery Return IP ERA FIP WAR
Arthur Rhodes PHI 37 3/31/07 4/15/08 176.2 2.75 3.95 2.1
Justin Verlander HOU 37 9/30/20 4/9/22 136.0 1.85 2.91 4.0
John Franco NYM 41 5/15/02 5/30/03 95.0 4.63 4.65 -0.1
Jason Isringhausen TB 36 9/1/09 4/11/11 92.1 4.09 4.70 -0.6
Billy Wagner NYM 36 9/10/08 8/20/09 85.0 1.48 2.33 2.3
Bronson Arroyo ARI 37 7/15/14 4/8/17 71.0 7.35 6.99 -0.7
Jamie Moyer PHI 47 12/1/10 4/7/12 53.2 5.70 5.54 0.1
Rafael Betancourt COL 38 9/17/13 4/6/15 39.1 6.18 3.34 0.6
Gary Lavelle TOR 37 4/22/86 6/6/87 32.0 5.91 4.31 0.2
Mike Fetters MIN 38 10/8/03 7/16/04 18.2 8.68 5.35 -0.1
Joe Nathan DET 40 4/29/15 7/24/16 6.1 0.00 2.20 0.2
Jose Contreras PHI 40 6/20/12 5/5/13 5.0 9.00 7.25 -0.2
Ricardo Rincon STL 36 5/12/06 9/5/08 4.0 4.50 5.63 0.0
SOURCE: Tommy John Surgery Database

As best I can tell, one has to lower the bar to age 34 to find a starting pitcher who returned to throw more innings than Verlander already has: John Tudor, who underwent the surgery in October 1988, after injuring himself in the World Series. He totaled 160.2 innings in two post-surgery seasons, the first a 14.1-inning cameo with the Dodgers in late 1989, the second a very solid 140.1-inning campaign with the Cardinals the next year, with a 2.40 ERA, 3.49 FIP, and 2.3 WAR. Though he won NL Comeback Player of the Year for that work, he opted to retire.

Only one pitcher who underwent Tommy John surgery is in the Hall of Fame, namely John Smoltz, who underwent the procedure in March 2000 and upon returning in mid-’01 spent three-plus seasons as a closer before moving back into the rotation for his final five seasons. He wasn’t actually the first player in the Hall to have had the surgery, though; infielder Paul Molitor, who had it done in 1984, was elected in 2004. The race to be the second TJ’d pitcher in Cooperstown is on, with Wagner, who walked away after an All-Star season at age 38, gaining momentum on the BBWAA ballot in recent years; he polled at 51% on the 2022 ballot, his seventh, and has three more years to get to 75%. Tommy John himself received three or fewer votes on the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot and under the new Era Committee format will have to compete with candidates from the 19th century and the Negro Leagues in order to get another shot, which at the earliest would happen in December 2024; to these eyes he’s a long shot simply for placement, let alone election.

As for Verlander’s performance, the Hall is on hold because he’s still throwing heat. His 95.0 mph average four-seam fastball velocity is actually 0.4 mph faster than in 2019. While it has considerably less spin (2,417 rpm versus 2,577) and is producing a much lower whiff rate (17.3% versus 31%), batters have hit it for just a .205 average and .311 slugging percentage, way down from 2019 (.229 AVG/.551 SLG); the pitch was actually more effective in 2017 (.206 AVG/.311 SLG) and ’18 (.213 AVG/.397 SLG) than in his Cy Young-winning season.

Verlander remains extremely effective when throwing his four-seamer in the upper third of the strike zone or higher, as much because he’s limiting the hard contact as because he’s generating whiffs:

Justin Verlander Four-Seamers in Upper Third of Zone or Higher
Season PA AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA EV Whiff%
2017 227 .177 .196 .240 .328 .251 .292 86.5 25.2%
2018 236 .201 .175 .364 .315 .275 .250 87.2 32.8%
2019 160 .230 .188 .581 .467 .347 .293 91.0 34.0%
2022 135 .151 .195 .227 .336 .212 .270 88.1 21.0%

In fact, Verlander has been among the majors’ most effective when it comes to working upstairs with the heater:

Lowest wOBA on Four-Seam Fastballs in Upper Third of Zone or Higher
Pitcher Team Pit PA Avg xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA EV
Luis Castillo CIN/SEA 281 58 .060 .093 .080 .143 .147 .183 83.0
Max Scherzer NYM 281 61 .107 .169 .161 .289 .155 .232 87.6
José Quintana PIT/STL 483 102 .116 .180 .211 .269 .178 .229 79.7
George Kirby SEA 397 97 .136 .165 .216 .288 .188 .230 86.6
Julio Urías LAD 462 120 .104 .146 .189 .209 .191 .217 83.9
Nestor Cortes NYY 412 87 .130 .124 .208 .183 .192 .195 88.1
Justin Verlander HOU 640 135 .151 .195 .227 .336 .212 .270 88.1
Alexis Díaz CIN 301 67 .077 .150 .154 .300 .221 .306 88.0
Zack Wheeler PHI 411 99 .149 .141 .241 .229 .224 .217 87.4
MacKenzie Gore SDP 371 82 .095 .171 .143 .283 .230 .303 86.6
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 250 four-seam fastballs in Gameday zones 1, 2, 3, 11, and 12.

Meanwhile, Verlander’s curveball remains as stifling as it was pre-injury. Batters have hit just .150 and slugged .287 against it while whiffing 25.1% of the time. They’ve similarly struggled against his slider (.192 AVG/.267 SLG), which has an even higher whiff rate (35.3%).

Overall, while Verlander’s 25.7% strikeout rate is his lowest mark since 2015, it’s still good for seventh in the AL. Meanwhile, his 4.6% walk rate is third, and his 21.1% strikeout-walk differential is fourth; it’s also higher than all of his seasons with the Tigers except his final full one, in 2016. He’s limited hitters to just 0.79 homers per nine, a level he hasn’t seen since 2014, hence his impressive 2.91 FIP, which ranks fifth among AL qualifiers. Though none of his contact stats is exceptional — his barrel rate, average exit velo, and hard-hit rate range from the 53rd percentile to the 76th — his 2.94 xERA is fourth thanks to the impact of his walk and strikeout rates.

With more than one quarter of the season to go, Verlander is hardly assured of a Cy Young. To these eyes, the field appears to consist of these five, who are ordered here by fWAR, though you can sort them by the other stats presented in the table:

AL Cy Young Contenders
Pitcher Team W-L IP K% ERA xERA FIP xFIP fWAR bWAR
Kevin Gausman TOR 8-8 117.2 28.1% 2.91 3.52 1.99 2.79 4.4 2.3
Justin Verlander HOU 15-3 136.0 25.7% 1.85 2.94 2.91 3.42 4.0 4.2
Dylan Cease CHW 12-5 128.2 33.0% 1.96 2.58 2.75 3.13 3.6 4.4
Shohei Ohtani LAA 10-7 111.0 35.2% 2.68 2.66 2.45 2.39 3.6 3.6
Shane McClanahan TBR 10-5 128.1 33.3% 2.24 2.42 2.61 2.24 3.4 3.4

Gausman’s comparatively high ERA and modest won-loss record probably wouldn’t draw much attention from voters if the ballots were cast today, but the other four are probably neck-and-neck, even Ohtani, who entered Thursday one inning short of qualifying for the ERA title but has absolutely dazzled and is high on both pitching WAR leaderboards. Cease has been on some kind of roll lately, with 11 straight starts allowing either zero or one run, a span during which he’s pitched to a 0.82 ERA and 2.47 FIP; he broke the tie with Verlander for the AL bWAR lead with a six-inning, one-run effort against the Royals on Thursday night, albeit in defeat.

If he does take home the trophy, Verlander won’t be the oldest Cy Young winner; that distinction belongs to Roger Clemens, who won his seventh award in 2004, at the age of 42 (after his age-41 season). Gaylord Perry, whose record he broke, won his second award in 1978 at the age of 40 (after his age-39 season). Verlander won’t turn 40 until next February 20, so he couldn’t even claim to join the over-40 club if he wins. Even so, the strength of his recovery from Tommy John surgery has already put him in uncharted territory.

Hall of Fame-wise, Verlander has broken his pre-season tie with Clayton Kershaw at 60.8 S-JAWS to become the active leader. He’s got 75.0 career bWAR, 49.9 adjusted peak WAR, and 62.9 S-JAWS, putting him a full point ahead of the now-injured Kershaw (74.0/49.7/61.9), with Zack Greinke (75.1/48.4/61.7) not far behind him but also not pitching very well, though he threw 6.1 shutout innings opposite Cease on Thursday. Max Scherzer (70.3/47.4/58.9) is a few points behind, but he, like the others, is ahead of the S-JAWS standard (56.8). Verlander, who’s 23rd in S-JAWS, is likely to pass Fergie Jenkins (84.1/42.0/63.1), with Curt Schilling (79.5/47.5/63.5) and Mike Mussina (82.8/44.5/63.6) even within reach; bypassing that pair would move him into the top 20.

Combine that with his 241 wins, 3,147 strikeouts, and all of the other accolades, and I don’t think there’s any doubt left as to Verlander winding up in the Hall. To get there, though, he’ll have to stop pitching, and given the way he’s doing it now, there’s no reason to quit.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

62 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
sadtrombonemember
3 months ago

Verlander is clearly a first ballot Hall of Famer along with Kershaw. And Scherzer is making a strong bid too since he’s still throwing well.

gottaIch116member
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I think Scherzer is clearly a first ballot Hall of Famer too. What makes you reluctant to say that he is?

sadtrombonemember
3 months ago
Reply to  gottaIch116

I just don’t think he’s going to win over 75% of voters at first, at least now. He got a slightly slower start than the other two and there are a fewer ridiculous all-time seasons. I think Scherzer has only one of those, in 2018, although he came out hot in 2019 if I recall correctly.

That said if he retired today he’d have a shot on the first ballot, make it in after a couple of years for sure, and it’s not like he’s done yet. If he just stays healthy through this contract with the Mets he’s almost certainly a first ballot guy too. And if he keeps pitching like this he probably only needs 2023 to lock it in.

tung_twista
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Scherzer is 4th in all-time Cy Young shares
behind only Clemens, Johnson, and Maddux.
Even if he retires today, over/under line for his first year ballot is going to be closer to 90% than 75%.

tdouglas
3 months ago
Reply to  tung_twista

Can I ask what a Cy Young share is? I’m fairly knowledgeable about Fangraphs-related vocabulary, but I don’t think I’ve heard that one. I can’t find it on the leaderboards.

Bubbamember
3 months ago
Reply to  tdouglas

It’s tracked at baseball reference. It sums the ballot points you receive over the maximum possible (if you win first place unanimously, that would count as 1 full point): https://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/mvp_cya.shtml

Last edited 3 months ago by Bubba
tdouglas
3 months ago
Reply to  Bubba

Thanks!

sogoodlooking
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Ah, I think I see the problem. You’re looking at the numbers of Maxine Scherzer, from the 2015 DC Beer League. Common mistake.

In seriousness, Scherzer’s 2013-2021 is awe-inspiring: For the Cy he has 3 – 1sts, 1 – 2nd, 2- 3rds, 2 – 5ths. Those guys aren’t kept waiting by the door. He was solidly above average in his other 6 seasons, as well.

With the bulldog rep, 70 bWAR, and solid postseason #s in 128 innings, he’s a clear 1st ballot HOFer even if the bus comes by.

TKDCmember
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Scherzer is a slam-dunk first ballot hall of famer. His career right now is basically a slightly better version of Roy Halladay.

Greinke is also a sure fire inductee, but he could have to wait a while. But when they start looking around at the newer candidates that are starting pitchers, Greinke will start to look better and better.

EonADS
3 months ago
Reply to  TKDC

Halladay may not have been a first-ballot addition if he hadn’t tragically passed away before voting on him commenced. Just barely over 200 wins, under 3000 innings, just barely over 2000 K’s, and with 8 AS selections and 2 Cy’s as his best accolades, I don’t know if he would have made it first-ballot. He was above the average standard in Peak WAR, but only just, and he was well below average in both JAWS and Career WAR.

Jay wrote of Halladay: “Though the brevity of Halladay’s career left his traditional statistical totals rather short, his advanced stats frame a solid Hall of Fame case, particularly as the era of the workhorse starter fades, and the shape of his career stands in marked contrast to the other pitchers on the 2019 ballot. He may not have been viewed as an automatic, first-ballot choice before his early demise, but if he’s elected this year, he wouldn’t be the first candidate to gain baseball immortality in short order after the hard fact of human mortality was underscored.”

I do think he was a worthy addition to the Hall, but I believe it was his tragic early passing that catapulted him into first-ballot status. Similarly, if Scherzer’s career ends soon, he won’t be a first-ballot addition in my book.

Last edited 3 months ago by EonADS
sadtrombonemember
3 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

I think you’re right about Halliday but more generally it’s important to remember that Scherzer’s career isn’t over. He probably will end up in a different place than where he is right now.

EonADS
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

True, and Mad Max has already passed 3K on the K scale. Two more years and he’ll pass 3000 Ip’s as well. I stand corrected.

TKDCmember
3 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

I will gladly take that bet and my Venmo information will be forthcoming. It’s pointless to argue the effect of Halladay’s passing on his induction. It’s not as if he was flying supplies to a disaster-ridden country. I’m not aware of voters coming forward to say that his death was a difference maker.

Every 3-time Cy Young Award winner has been elected on the first ballot (save Clemens, and, you know…). The guy is about to bust onto the first page of the career WAR leaderboard, and could be as high as 12th all time in strikeouts by the end of the year. Honestly, he’s not Pedro, but he might really be closer to Pedro than he is to Halladay. Aside from the winz, he has all of the markers: Cy Young’s, All Stars, postseason moments, the 20K game, the dominance at his peak that made him appointment television. He’s not going to, but he could retire this year and easily waltz into Cooperstown in five years.

KissMyPurpleButtmember
3 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

As a Blue Jay fan Halladay was definitely a HOF caliber player, first ballot or otherwise. He was one of the elite pitchers of the early 2000s. That said Scherzer and Verlander both have better numbers and both should get in.

cowdisciplemember
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

First ballet in what, 2037? 2038?

sadtrombonemember
3 months ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

That would be something to watch, wouldn’t it? That would be Nolan Ryan type stuff. Not actual Nolan Ryan stuff because Ryan probably threw the most pitches in baseball history and nearly single handedly brought back strikeouts but…the longevity part would be similar.

cowdisciplemember
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It sure seems like he could be an effective reliever for at least a few years even after he’s done being one of the best starters in the game, whenever that happens.

jaysfan39
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

If Verlander is clearly first ballot then I don’t see how Scherzer isn’t as well, scherzer has a higher W-L%, better ERA, better K per 9, better BB per 9 although barely, better H per 9, better WHIP, better FIP, better ERA+, he is an 8 time all star with 8 top 5 finishes in CYA with 3 wins.

cowdisciplemember
3 months ago
Reply to  jaysfan39

Verlander has 500 innings on Scherzer. I think they both are, personally.

sadtrombonemember
3 months ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

Right, Verlander was pitching 200-inning seasons at 24 and ripped off an incredible 8.4 fWAR season at 26. Scherzer didn’t find his footing until he was traded to Detroit, and didn’t put up a 6+ fWAR season until he was in Washington at age 30. By age 30, Verlander had four of those.

This is what I mean by Scherzer starting later. He’s had a heck of a run in his 30s, though. He’ll catch up real fast if he keeps pitching anything like this and stays healthy.

jaysfan39
3 months ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

Yes he does but if Scherzer retired after this season he would have all those crazy rate stats and Cy votes while also leading MLB in IPs since his first full season 14 years ago. That kind of 14 year stretch with 3 Cys and continuously being one of the best pitchers in MLB would be a first ballot HOF in my opinion.

cartermember
3 months ago
Reply to  jaysfan39

Crazy that if Scherzer hadn’t had the IL stint he would have a decent chance at a Cy Young today. Verlander and Scherzer in 2022 would be a trip. I guess we always have 2023!

MikeDmember
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I know what a first-ballot HOFer is–it’s a player who makes it in on the first ballot, but that doesn’t mean first-ballot HOFers are necessarily inner-circle HOFers, nor would I view a player who was elected on the second ballot as not being an inner-circle HOFer. There are some who had to wait. When a player gets elected is heavily impacted by the ballot he’s on, the competition, perhaps some external “political” pressures, prejudices, etc. Some players entrances are delayed, others end up accelerated. Look no further this this year’s ceremony. David Ortiz was elected on the first ballot. He’s not an inner-circle HOFer by my definition, and in fact, there was some thinking he might never get in because of PED allegations, or that he’d have to wait a few turns because he was a DH. Neither ended up applying.

Scherzer may not be an inner-circle HOFer, although there is subjectivity to that very definition, but he is a HOFer, and should be a first-ballot HOFer. I can’t think of an argument against him. Three Cy Young Awards, eight times in the top five, six times in the top three, tons of black ink across his career. There’s a reason that at age 37 he’s the highest paid player by AAV in the game.

Scherzer has a career WAR of 69.3, Andy Pettitte is 68.2. No one would argue Pettitte is in Scherzer’s class, although he was a heck of a pitcher in his own right, just a different style. Scherzer, Verlander and Kershaw are the slam-dunk HOF pitchers in the game right now. I think Greinke will get in, but he’s probably more of a slow-burn candidate that will be debated a few rounds. I believe Carlos Beltran will be that on the position-player side, although his candidacy is complicated by the Astros and 2017.

I do believe starting pitchers of recent generations are underrepresented. It feels like you have to be Randy Johnson, Kershaw, Pedro, Verlander level to get in. It’s odd, because there is no more important person on the field for every game than the pitcher. The next-level down deserve greater consideration.

Not sure how I went down this rabbit hole on article about Verlander!

Last edited 3 months ago by MikeD
sadtrombonemember
3 months ago
Reply to  MikeD

That’s an interesting distinction and one I hadn’t considered. I think that it’s possible that now that the super controversial guys on the ballot have aged off and many of the crankier and less effusive voters have been replaced that Scherzer would get in precisely for the reasons you say. The HoF voting process is so different now than it was even last year.

All that said I don’t think we’re going to find out. If he pitches in 2023 like has in 2022 and stays healthy he will definitely get in on the first ballot. He would be in a similar spot to where Verlander was coming into this year.

OddBall Herrera
3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yes I think he is a slam dunk. The Hall clearly has already worked through their fealty to now unreachable counting stat benchmarks for pitchers by putting in a guy like Roy Halladay (though admittedly he had special circumstance that may have nudged in his favor)